Spring position analysis
A look at what we've learned so far from UF practice
Published: Friday, March 30, 2012 at 6:00 a.m.
Last Modified: Thursday, March 29, 2012 at 10:27 p.m.
There are still several practices and the Orange and Blue Game to go, so there is still important work to be done before we close the book on Florida football's spring.
But it's not too early to develop a feel for what's been happening with the Gators on the practice field.
With the help of two open practices and lots of interviews with coaches and players over the past few weeks, we offer this position-by-position spring analysis:
Will Muschamp and offensive coordinator Brent Pease have both said Jacoby Brissett and Jeff Driskel have performed very well despite having a lot thrown at them in the new offense. But, according to Muschamp, there has been no separation between the two this spring. It appears unlikely that will change. This is a QB competition that is expected to carry over to August. There is a real possibility a starter will not be named until a week from the opener. And, as Muschamp said before the spring, there is a chance the Gators could end up playing two QBs in the fall. One thing we've learned this spring is there is a third party involved in the competition — Tyler Murphy, who threw the ball extremely well in the two practices that were open to the public.
There has been separation here. Senior Mike Gillislee has had a very productive spring and is close to locking down the starting role. The big question is, can he stay healthy? He's been plagued by ankle injuries in the past. If he can stay in the lineup, he has a chance to be an every-down tailback in what the Gators hope will be a downhill running game. Gillislee has improved his pass protection, which further helps his cause. One of the surprises of the spring has been junior Mack Brown, who finally seems to know all his assignments. He made some impressive runs in last Saturday's scrimmage. Wide receiver/tight end Omarius Hines has shown he can help at tailback. He's a big, strong athlete who has drawn praise from the coaches and his teammates. Trey Burton and Hunter Joyer give the Gators a solid 1-2 look at fullback. Burton can play several positions, including tailback, and Joyer could be the back when the Gators shift into a one-back look.
After being almost a non-factor last season following a strong spring, sophomore Quinton Dunbar has become the go-to wide receiver this spring. He's improved in all aspects of his game, according to Pease, and has been a consistent playmaker. The other top three receivers this spring have been Frankie Hammond Jr., Latroy Pittman and Andre Debose, who started slowly after being injured for much of the offseason. One of the surprising stars has been Pittman, a true freshman who has caught on quickly and has given the offense a presence in the downfield passing game. Hines, of course, can play slot receiver and tight end (along with tailback). The Gators are thin at tight end. A.C. Leonard, who was arrested for simple domestic battery in February, returned to practice this week, but there has been no decision yet on whether he'll even play this season. Jordan Reed has had a solid spring, although he has rarely been mentioned by the coaches. His backup has been Clay Burton, who is still developing physically.
The same offensive line that Muschamp called soft at the end of the season now appears to be a potential team strength. Several defensive linemen have commented that the offensive linemen are more physical and more together as a unit than last season. Chemistry is big up front, and this line appears to be developing some this spring. Muschamp revealed his starters earlier this week. They are Xavier Nixon at left tackle, James Wilson at left guard, Jon Harrison at center, Jon Halapio at right guard and Matt Patchan at right tackle. Muschamp has been quick to point out that these guys went into last season with very little experience. They all have some now. The Gators have developed depth by having players train at more than one position. Harrison, Sam Robey and Kyle Koehne have all practiced at guard and center. Chaz Green and Trip Thurman have been getting reps at both tackle positions. Overall, the offensive linemen seem to have taken to their new position coach, Tim Davis, and to Muschamp's demands to be tougher and more physical.
This will be a team strength in the fall, but at the moment so many players are out with injuries that the Gators have barely enough defensive linemen to get by in practice. This line will look much different, and much stronger, with the return of starting tackle Dominique Easley and starting end Lerentee McCray in the fall. Several injured players also will return, including ends Kedric Johnson and Earl Okine. The big news this spring has been the much-improved and dominant play of Buck end/linebacker Ronald Powell, who seems to finally be coming into his own after two rather inconsistent seasons. By all accounts, Powell has given the Gators a strong and steady outside pass rush that was missing last season. Couple in his ability to stop the run, and Powell figures to be one of UF's biggest defensive playmakers in the fall. Another spring positive has been the continued progress of junior Sharrif Floyd, who has shown he has the physical tools to be a dominant player at both end and tackle. Two tackles who are still developing are junior college transfer Damien Jacobs and sophomore Leon Orr. Both have struggled with consistency this spring, but both have also shown impressive flashes at times.
As usual, middle linebacker Jon Bostic and outside linebacker Jelani Jenkins have been solid and consistent. But Muschamp said earlier this week that he has not been pleased with the overall production of his linebackers. Darrin Kitchens and Graham Stewart have been sharing reps at the Sam position, while true freshman Antonio Morrison has shown a lot of potential playing behind Jenkins at Will, and Mike Taylor continues to make plays backing up Bostic. Depth, however, remains a major concern. It would be a big plus if Neiron Ball is cleared to play football again at some point this summer.
With so many proven players returning, the secondary has a chance to be the strength of the defense. Matt Elam, Josh Evans and De'Ante “Pop” Saunders have performed at a high level at the safety positions. The Gators also seem set at both cornerback positions, where there is talent, experience and depth. Loucheiz Purifoy has followed up a strong second half of the season with an impressive spring at one corner spot. At the other corner, Jaylen Watkins appears to be one of the most improved players on the team. During the two open practices, Watkins had three interceptions and seemed to consistently make plays. Cody Riggs also has had a productive spring. Here's a young guy to keep an eye on: true freshman Willie Bailey, who is undersized at the moment (170 pounds), but has impressed the coaches with his speed and athletic ability at corner.
Contact Robbie Andreu at 352-374-5022 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
Also check out Andreu's blog at Gatorsports.com.
Reader comments posted to this article may be published in our print edition. All rights reserved. This copyrighted material may not be re-published without permission. Links are encouraged.